May 24, 2005

...Or Anything By Tom Waits

by peterb

In 1988, LSD was popular among some people at Carnegie Mellon. So much so that when a number of people had "bad trips," the administration released a public service announcement warning people: "The acid with the picture of the sunshine on it is bad, and has been causing bad trips. Stay away from the 'bad acid'". Then, of course, for the rest of the academic year, absolutely everyone on campus used "Whoah, bad acid!" as a catchphrase.

The April Fool's edition of the school paper that year published an article talking about how the Dean of Student Affairs, whose first name was Brad, was offering to "test" any drugs that students should come across, free of charge. The (fake) article concluded with the ditty the Dean urged students to remember at all times:

Drugs are yucky
Drugs are bad
Take all your drugs
and give them to Brad!
I was working as a computer consultant for the general computing department at the time, as was my acquaintance Chris Rapier. The graveyard shifts were always a strange mixture of mind-numbing boredom punctuated with moments of transcendent weirdness. There were the people pulling all-nighters to finish their assignments (they bathed), the people who just hung around the computer clusters all the time (they didn't), and people who would wander in and out for various other reasons. Meeting friends. Eating pizza. Picking up printouts.

Chris and I were working a graveyard shift once, and some Birkenstock-wearing types were wandering through, obviously baked out of their skulls, giggling and pointing and ahhhing over everything in that supercilious tripster way.

Now Chris — well, it's hard to describe Chris, especially because I didn't know him that well at the time. He had a mohawk, and wore the punk rock attitude, but somehow it wasn't annoying because you could tell, deep down, that he knew that he was just as full of crap as the guy wearing a suit and working at the bank. He understood that the regalia wasn't proof of a lifestyle, but just a costume with pretensions. He wore it well.

But Chris was always doing crazy, stupid things, because they were fun. And seeing the tripsters wander through made me wonder about something, and we had the following conversation:

Pete: "Hey, Chris?"

Chris: "Yeah?"

"I have a question. I've been wondering — have you ever done acid?"

"No, why?"

"How come? I'm not criticizing you for not doing it or anything, but it seems like the sort of thing you'd do, just because it would cause chaos."

Chris took his feet down from the desk, got up, and began to file some printouts.
"You know, Pete, that's an excellent question. It does seem like the sort of thing I'd do. Let me explain the reason why I don't do hallucinogens. On the one hand, it's true that they might lead to interesting experiences and open my mind to new vistas. On the other hand I have to balance the fact that tripping people annoy me. They drive me nuts, and I always want to freak them out and scare them and make them have a bad time. And so I know that if I tripped, after a little while I'd start to irritate myself, and then I'd decide that I should freak myself out, and I'd go up to a mirror and try to convince myself that my face was melting, or that my brains were leaking out my nose, and then they'd have to admit me to the psych institute the next day."

This, it seemed to me, was a truly excellent answer to my question, and I went on with my shift, satisfied. I've always remembered his response, and thought about it from time to time.

And it is upon remembering that conversation again, recently, that I was inspired to come up with this simple thing: a list of songs to play to throw irritating hallucinogenophiles into bad trips.

Picking songs that accomplish this is trickier than you might think, because depending on how completely obliterated your target is, he or she might not actually have enough functioning neurons to listen to the words of whatever songs you're playing. So your choices need to not just have a liminal message that will mess with the addled mind when they think about the words, but also need enough power, dissonance, or force in the music to shake up the dumbest of droppers.

Listen to them. Love them. Keep them loaded on your portable music device at all times.

And by all means — suggest your own additions to the list.

1. Pixies - "All Over the World" from Bossanova (lyrics - iTunes)

The only question with the Pixies is which Pixies songs won't cause a bad trip. But "All Over the World" is the king of the castle. Evil vocoder processed voices? Check. Enigmatic lyrics with mysterious radioed-in messages like "Better call the a train derailment"? Check. Aggressive yet addictive guitar riff that will echo in your target's head until they are doubled over in anguish, trying to claw the invisible spiders out of their eyes? Check. This is my pick for "Most likely to require several years of psychotherapy to recover from."

2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - "Jangling Jack" from Let Love In (lyrics - iTunes)

"Jangling Jack" is a harsh song on a harsh album. Both the music and the lyrics are nasty, brutish, and full of malignancy. I think it's a great song, but more so than any other song on this list I have to warn you that I've never met anyone else who likes it: it seems to repel people on an almost subconscious level. But it's high on this list because underneath the driving noise is a pop song riff that will pull your high-flying victim down to earth to investigate. At which point they're toast.

3. Crosby Stills Nash and Young - "Cathedral" from CSN (lyrics - iTunes)

This one is a beautiful sucker play. It wins on several levels. First, it starts off gently, floating and melodic. You could close your eyes and bliss out to it. Second, the narrator in it is (it is implied) dropping acid. So there's a self-referential loop that will begin to disorient your el-salvadoran-non-exploitative-coffee drinking friend. Then the tone changes instantly to a full on religious-crisis panic, as the narrator starts obsessing about all the people killed in the name of Christ, so if the tripper has any cultural connection to Christianity, they're instantly punched in their spiritual solar plexus.

4. Negativland - Christianity Is Stupid (lyrics - iTunes)

A driving mechanical drone. A sampled repeated voice declaiming: "Christianity is Stupid. Communism is good. Give up." Look, I'm an atheist and this song somehow creeps me out (while at the same time, making me laugh). Fire it up and test out just how open a mind can be.

5. Nina Simone - "Sinnerman" from Anthology (lyrics - iTunes)

Finishing up our trio of religion-related songs, Nina Simone delivers "Sinnerman" with an angry intensity that can't be mistaken as anything but hostile, even if you're not paying attention to the words. If you'd like a secular choice instead, you could safely substitute Simone's rendition of the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill class-warfare saga "Pirate Jenny." For some reason, no one else has ever done this song justice, in either English or German. Simone captures the raw, unbridled, impotent hate in the libretto perfectly. (lyricsiTunes)

6. Richard and Linda Thompson - "Shoot Out the Lights" from Shoot Out the Lights (lyrics - iTunes)

After recording Shoot Out the Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson divorced. If you make a happy tripping couple listen to this song, there are good odds that they'll divorce too.

7. Rollins Band - "Obscene", from The End of Silence (lyrics - iTunes)

This one is almost too easy, and I feel bad including it. But, y'know, what can you do? You just gotta have some Henry.

8. Roy Orbison - "In Dreams" from various albums (lyrics - iTunes)

This one really only works if the soon-to-be-cowering scapegoat has seen the movie Blue Velvet. It's the song you might remember as "The Candy Colored Clown They Call the Sandman."

9. Bob Mould - "Anymore Time Between" from Bob Mould (lyrics - iTunes)

Bob Mould plays every instrument on this incredible album, and despair just oozes out of every note: but the amazing production values will keep the dazed and confused mesmerized while they succumb to it. You could also substitute, more or less, any song by Mould's old band Hüsker Dü, but that might also be considered "too easy."

10. Jane Siberry - "The White Tent The Raft" from The Walking (lyrics - iTunes)

I've always had a soft spot for Toronto-area musician and songwriter Jane Siberry, who knew so little about production back in the day that she wasn't averse to just continuing to pile on layers of sound until the listener was drowning in them. Like "Cathedral," this is another song that will lull the target into a false sense of security, with its pastoral, almost lyrical opening. It's unlikely that they suspect that they'll shortly be jerking spasmodically, unable to make the pain stop as the syncopated schizophrenia of Siberry's music (and stream of consciousness, emotion-filled lyrics) fill their brain and leave no room for restful mandalas. The other nice trait of "The White Tent The Raft" is that it's about 8 million minutes long, so you can make the deep hurting last for a while.

Now, I'm not suggesting that anyone who ingests mind-altering substances should necessarily be subjected to this treatment. I'd probably save this sort of abuse only for those people who really deserve it. My rule of thumb is that if you use the word "entheogen" in place of "hallucinogen", or if you're wearing one of those stupid multicolored produced-by-indigenous-peoples knit caps, you're fair game. Everyone else is mostly safe.

That's my list. What's yours?

Additional Resources

  • Chris Rapier now does networking research. He's still brilliant.

  • Entheogen is a euphemism used by fans of hallucinogenic drugs to try to dissemble about the substances they enjoy ("I'm not hallucinating! I'm finding the God within!") It's especially adorable when they use the word in the context of giving such drugs to people without their knowledge or consent.
  • If you've got a weblog of your own and want to join in the game, post your own list of bad-trip-inducing songs and track me back (or comment), and I'll link to it here. Maybe this could be one of those "meme" things I've heard so much about, that those crazy kids with their hamburger sandwiches and their french fried potatoes are into.

Posted by peterb at May 24, 2005 08:35 PM | Bookmark This

Diamanda Galas, Vena Cava.
(Amazon: "A glorious portion of an aria (Galas trained bel canto for several years) is following by almost subsonic whispers, then ear-shattering, crazily repetitive "blocking exercises," lullabies, and amazingly potent yet brief vignettes that trace the speaker's life from infanthood ("Is that you daddy? Hi daddy,") to her family's whispered plans (unknowingly overheard by the patient) for the small, discrete wake appropriate to one dying a shameful death.")

Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Some of the nastier tracks on pretty much any Legendary Pink Dots.

None of these are evil nihilist mindfucks at all, though. I can't actually think of any of those. That's fine; who needs them.

Posted by Eli at May 24, 2005 09:08 PM

As Eli said, Legendary Pink Dots. Specifically, "Encore Une Fois". The tape loops and song structure kinda mess with me and irritate me on a normal day. If I'm only half-paying attention, I'm never sure if the cd or my sound card is stuck and the song really should have ended minutes ago. [lyrics]

Coil, "Heartworms". Or pretty much anything. But Heartworms is particularly menacing, one of Jhon Balance's songs about the (alcohol) addiction that eventually killed him. [lyrics]

I don't even want to think about listening to The Residents' "Eskimo" album while tripping. For extra fun use the remastered 5.1 edition.

Posted by Adam Rixey at May 24, 2005 11:30 PM

It stripped out the html, so Encore Une Fois lyrics: (third song listed)


Posted by Adam Rixey at May 24, 2005 11:33 PM

The best thing about this article, aside from the fact that it makes me want to rearrange my iTunes playlists, is that the Chris quote sounds EXACTLY LIKE CHRIS.

It makes me wonder if you managed to remember it 100% word-for-word all these years, because: damn. spot on.

Posted by Laura at May 26, 2005 12:34 PM

I stumbled upon your blog and hope you don't mind the comment... but Red House Painters' cover of Silly Loves Songs drives me into a funk when I'm sober. I didn't figure out the song until 9 minutes had gone by (which felt like 40) and then it shot me back into the 70's. Sneaky and cruel, really.

Posted by digital cowgirl at May 26, 2005 09:09 PM

Fucking hell, I wrote that little ditty for The Natrat! Somebody else read it besides me!

Songs: I'd nominate Chris Morris' "The Gush" and aphex twin's "Ventolin".

Posted by dm at May 26, 2005 10:29 PM

Sorry to just butt in here, but wow. I was surfing the blogosphere when I ran across Carnegie Mellon, 1988. I didn't know other old fuckers like me were doing these hip new internet things. Anyway, I graduated in 1987. I also had that mind-numbing computer consultant job. I am responsible for the game Xenoblast, which was a little phenomenon in the computing center during the Spring/Summer of 1987. Do you remember it? When I tell people I wrote a networked 3D game in 1987, they treat me like I just dropped acid. Anyway, nice to hear about the old days.

My contribution to your list:
Any track from the Mind side of Mind/Body (a collection of music by artists from

Posted by tinman at May 27, 2005 07:23 AM

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